Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Tuesday Forgotten American Blogging: Bella Abzug

One of the most disturbing aspects of Forgotten American Blogging is how quickly people are forgotten. Bella Abzug died 9 years ago. Yet who remembers her today? Some of you readers? No doubt. But if I were to ask my undergraduates who Bella Abzug was, I would be shocked if any of them knew. In fact, if I were to ask the master's students in U.S. history in my program, I would bet not so many of them would know anything specific about her. Will Gloria Steinem even be remembered a decade after her death? I doubt it. So sometimes, I feel the need to talk about someone whose history is recent and who should still be remembered by lots of people today as a key person in American history, but who is not.

Bella Abzug was born in 1920 in New York. Early in her life, she showed herself to be a leader. When her grandfather and father died, there was no male left to say the year of mourning prayers for her Jewish family. Although women were not supposed to do this, she went to temple and did so anyway. From the beginning of her career, she pushed for women's rights, labor rights, and civil rights. She was a professional pioneer, graduating from Hunter College with a B.A., then getting a LL.B. from Columbia. She was admitted to the bar in 1947 and immediately began practicing law, something far from common among women of her generation. Many of her early cases were in labor law, including the United Auto Workers. But she only worked with labor lawyers for two years because, in her words, "I left those dopey labor layers because they treated me like shit." Labor was more than a bit sexist at that time and most of these lawyers could not deal with a woman sitting at the table with them on an equal footing. A secretary, OK. But not a lawyer.

Abzug became a leading light in national campaigns to fight for civil rights, against the Vietnam War, and for the Equal Rights Amendment. She became counsel for several people forced to testify in front of HUAC or McCarthy's Senate committee. She really made her name though testifying for Willie McGee in the 1950s. In 1949, McGee was arrested in Mississippi for having sex with a white woman. He was found guilty of rape and sentenced to death. In reality, the relationship had been consensual and had gone on for three years. The woman charged him with rape when McGee decided to end the affair. The NAACP and the National Lawyers Guild took up McGee's case. The NLG asked the thirty year old Abzug to go to Mississippi to defend McGee in 1950. She argued that McGee was sentenced to cruel and unusual punishment. She succeeded in obtaining a six month stay of execution. She returned to argue a second appeal but could not find a place to stay in Jackson because the Klan was looking for this communist Jew defending a black man. The appeal was denied. A pregnant Abzug suffered a miscarriage. McGee was executed in 1951.

In 1961, Abzug showed up at a planning meeting for the group that became Women's Strike for Peace, a mother's group determined to fight the poisoning of food their children ate by atmospheric nuclear testing. She quickly took a leadership position in the group, convincing the organization to start lobbying Congress instead of simply protesting. By the end of 1962, she became legislative direction for the organization. She helped turn the organization from nuclear opposition to fighting the war in Vietnam. She helped the organization become more politically sophisticated and led the evolution of the group into one of the most powerful women's organizations in the country.

She was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1970, serving her Manhattan district until 1977. She won specifically on a platform of peace and women's equality, the first successful campaign on these grounds since Jeannette Rankin. She faced severe sexism within Congress. When she wanted to swim in the House swimming pool, she was told it was only open to women at 5 AM. She was told that she could not vote wearing her signature hats. She was given secondary committee assignments. She wanted a seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee given her campaign platform. Instead, she was placed on the Public Works and Transportation Committee. Abzug did not do what most good freshmen congresspeople are supposed to: shut up. Instead, she became a national phenomenon as the most prominent woman in Washington (along with Shirley Chisholm, speaking of Forgotten Americans). She was featured in Life magazine. But of course these features were almost all sexist, as they were written by the good ol' boys club of the Washington press corps. She was frequently referred to as a "battleaxe." Norman Mailer said her voice, "could boil the fat off a cab driver's neck." Despite this bad treatment, Abzug proved an effective congresswoman. She co-authored the Freedom of Information Act and the Right to Privacy Act. She was the first member of Congress to call for Richard Nixon's impeachment.

How did the New York Democratic Party respond to Bella Abzug. They redistricted her out of her seat at the end of her first term! Determined to keep on, she ran a tough race against the popular liberal congressman on the Upper West Side, a decision that led to deep animosity against her within the New York Democratic Party. Ryan had cancer though and was weakening. He died before the primary. Abzug's enemies claimed that she had killed him. In any case, Abzug won the race. When she returned to the House, although she had enemies in New York that hated her, she had won the respect of Majority Leader Tip O'Neill, who made Abzug a deputy whip. During her third term in Congress, U.S. News and World Report named her one of the three most influential members of Congress.

She hoped to continue her career in the Senate but lost the 1976 Democratic primary to Daniel Patrick Moynihan in a very tight race. More than likely, the race was thrown to Moynihan when the New York Times withdrew its support for her at the last minute. The Times editorial board voted 8-2 in her favor but Arthur Ochs Sulzberger exercised his prerogative as owner and forced a switch to Moynihan. She ran for a few other offices in New York during the next several years but her political time had past and she left electoral politics, spending the rest of her life fighting for the causes she cared so much about.

Bella Abzug died in 1998, at the age of 78. Her death was noted in the United States, but was mourned internationally. Kofi Annan spoke at her memorial service at the United Nations, reminding the audience that Abzug has assembled the first women's caucus on the environment in Rio in 1992. Over 1400 people attended that service, remembering Abzug's work on environmentalism, peace, human rights, military policy, globalization, and of course, feminism.

A less classy quip came from George H.W. Bush, who when asked about Abzug, who was in failing health, attending the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, remarked, "I feel sorry for the Chinese having Bella Abzug running around China."

Much of the information for this essay comes from Judith Nies, Nine Women: Portraits from the American Radical Tradition. Abzug's journal, Bella! Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington and her book Gender Gap: Bella Abzug's Guide to Political Power for American Women are also worth taking a look at, even so many years later. I cannot find a full-length biography on Abzug, which is ridiculous.